In the last couple of weeks I saw two stage plays and read two novels. The plays were “big theme” stories. Rock and Roll by Tom Stoppard was about the Czeck Republic emerging from communism, it takes place between 1968 and 1993 and has a lot to say about totalitarianism and freedom and spirit – and Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.
Stuff Happens by David Hare is the story of the Bush Administration and how they got into Iraq. It has all the big players in it; Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, Rice, Powell – Saddam isn’t in it but there are a few lines from an Iraqi refuge and a Palestinian. Big geopolitic ideas discussed.
The novels weren’t about such big events. George V, Higgins’ Cogan’s Game is about, well, a lot of things. It starts out with two very small time crooks who get out of jail and talk to another guy they met in jail – a small-time operator himself – about robbing a big-money card game. Not movie-style, multi-million dollar big money, but fifty grand – big money to these guys.
Like Higgins’ other Boston novels, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Digger’s Game, the book is almost all dialogue, it’s just like being in the room or the car or on the bus with these guys and listening to them talk. Sometimes it’s frustrating – they aren’t the brightest guys – but mostly you understand where they’re coming from and what they want. And it’s always small stuff.
Old City Hall is kind of a big sweeping story that covers a lot of the same ground as my novels, the whole “multicultural Toronto,” but it takes place in much nicer places than my books. It’s a traditional murder mystery, a woman is found dead in the first chapter and then lots of characters piece together what really happened to her. It’s really a very personal tragedy, and quite self-contained.
Elmore Leonard has said that he doesn’t know what the themes are in his books until Scott Frank adapts them into screenplays and shows him, but that’s just Elmore poking the academics and big-time critics who can’t tell the difference between genre and literature but think they can.
I use theme as a crutch. When I’m writing a book and I hit a snag, or when I get into what Linwood Barclay so accurately calls the, “mushy middle,” I write a scene that may not advance the plot, but does explore the theme. Sometimes those scenes even stay in the book, but even if they get cut they’ve helped keep the momentum going and helped me work out the theme a little more myself.
But I don’t want the theme to overtake the action. I like big theme stories like Rock and Roll and Stuff Happens but they both kept the story moving and were very enertaining, They both had plenty of jokes – dark, twisted jokes, maybe, but the auidiences still laughed.
In Dirty Sweet the theme is opportunity – how some people see it everywhere and others don’t see it anywhere. Okay, not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but complicated enough for me.
Right now I’m at the mushy middle of the book I’m working on and I’m writing a lot of stuff that may not make it past the final edit, but it is helping me get a real handle on the theme.
So, how much do you think about theme? When you write and when you read?